Asbestos in the ceiling: Am I in danger?

Originally Published: February 20, 2004 - Last Updated / Reviewed On: January 15, 2013
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Dear Alice,

I just rented an apartment and before I signed the lease, I was told that there was a small amount of asbestos found in the ceiling texture. I was told that it is covered in paint and should not cause any harm unless I were to drill holes. I guess my question is: How much asbestos is "safe" and is this something to be concerned about?

Dear Reader,

Up to the 1970s, many houses and apartment buildings in the United States were constructed with asbestos, a versatile material with many uses, including insulation, fire-protection, soundproofing, and strengthening other materials. Asbestos was commonly used in:

  • Ceilings
  • Roofs
  • Walls
  • Floor coverings, such as vinyl tiles
  • Adhesives for installing floor tiles
  • Blankets or paper tape to insulate pipes, furnaces, and stoves

More recent medical studies have shown that over-exposure to asbestos fibers can cause serious health problems, including:

  • Lung cancer
  • Asbestosis (scarring of the lungs)
  • Mesothelioma (cancer that affects the lining of the chest)

The more asbestos fibers a person inhales, the greater his/her chances of getting one of these diseases. Smoking also increases the chances of having an asbestos-related illness if the smoker is/has been in contact with this material. For people who have breathed in enough asbestos to cause one of these diseases, symptoms tend to appear 20 - 30 years after the first exposure. Most people, however, who are exposed to small amounts, as many are in their everyday lives, won't experience any problems.

Just because there's asbestos in the ceiling of your new apartment doesn't mean you have to pack up and move out. Asbestos can be harmful when people inhale loose fibers. If loose fibers stay out of the air, you've got nothing to worry about. Asbestos-containing material (ACM) generally will not shed fiber unless it's damaged or disturbed. As you were advised, avoid drilling, cutting, sanding, hitting, rubbing, or otherwise handling the ACM in your ceiling.

You can talk with your landlord or superintendent again to find out more details about the ACM in your apartment — is it sealed in by the paint, or does the paint itself contain asbestos? Has a professional contractor been in recently to assess the situation? Also, be sure to inspect your ceiling regularly for cracks, holes, flaking, water-erosion, crumbling, or other damage that could expose you to loose asbestos fibers.

If there appears to be damage, talk with a professional contractor who's experienced in asbestos removal — don't try to remove the material yourself, as you might end up releasing more fibers into the air. If you're in New York City, you can try calling 311 for information on city agencies that could also be of help to you. Perhaps it is the landlord's responsibility to fix it for you, and all you need is an estimate or a deadline. If your ceiling appears to be undamaged and in good condition, continue to keep a watchful eye out, but otherwise, relax and enjoy your new apartment!

Alice